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Paradise is Burning (Paradiset Brinner)

An absent mother leaves her three daughters to fend for themselves, and find solace and joy in each other's company - thoughtful Swedish drama premieres in the 80th Venice Film Festival


Three sisters, Laura (16), Mira (12) and Steffi (7) embrace each day with laughter and chaos. At first glance their time is reminiscent of the taste of freedom during school summer holidays: endless sunny days, room to roam and run. Yet behind these seemingly joy-filled days is a gap where their mother has abandoned them; for swathes of time the sisters are left to live alone.

Captured within the nuanced portrayals of those conflicts are the complexities of girlhood on the brink of womanhood: how these sisters grapple with the intensity of their rapid coming-of-age, propelled by their abandonment. The siblings, played astonishingly by first-time street cast actors Bianca Delbravo, Dilvin Asaad and Safira Mossberg, contrast in their personalities, adopting multiple roles to function with their enforced responsibilities. Laura takes on motherhood with vigilance, yet when unable to cope, the weight of her burdens naturally falls on Mira, who struggles with the instability of her world in a constant state of flux. Steffi is naturally curious and with a watchful eye attempts to grasp her older sisters’ changing roles as teenager/sister/mother. There is admiration between the three of them and an enduring bond that shines throughout the film. Moments of domesticity transform into freedom and play, scored by music blaring in messy kitchens and through speakers in fields, their rhythms adding to their roaring energy. Toughness and tenderness coexist as fights break out followed by laughter.

The story centres around Laura awaiting a visit from social services, panic seeping after her mother’s most recent disappearance. She encounters Hanna, a woman whose curiosity instantly sparks; an interesting relationship forms as the question of who could potentially take their mother’s place for the visit hangs and their intimacy develops. Both from separate worlds, Laura in the poverty-stricken area of the suburban Swedish town and Hanna a middle-class young mother with a family, together they seek escapism. Driven by rebelliousness and Laura’s resourcefulness, they break into strangers’ homes. Together they hang out in extravagant kitchens, dance and read diaries. Their interactions centre around empty houses, slotting themselves into strangers’ worlds, whilst tensions escalate towards Laura’s home visit as the plot hurdles towards the day.

Sisterhood and all its complexities are captured in full force. Along with their closely knit group of friends, more teenage girls varying in ages, they skip school and take care of each other in their own ways. Comedic tones sit nicely with the simmering dramas unfolding for Laura, Mira and Steffi. When Mira gets her first period the group gather at sunset and light a fire. She gargles red wine, imitating a vampire and they burst into laughter, dancing around her in their ritual. For a usually excruciating marker of womanhood, they don’t shy away from its embarrassment – they celebrate in all its glory. DoP Sine Vadstrup Brooker captures the action both poetically and with a punk-ish edge, the camera enhancing the vividness of summer with jarring movement and lingering close-ups.

The neglect these sisters face unfolds thoughtfully, but never through a moralising tone. Recognised for her powerful documentary work exploring themes of queerness, youth and empowerment this debut drama addresses them beautifully. What remains clear is Gustafson’s joyful embrace of their messy realities: she takes these children seriously.

Mika Gustafson’s debut feature is incredibly strong in its portrayal of sorority. The Swedish filmmaker explains that his film is “a declaration of love to sisterhood” and that she wanted “to show what it’s like to be a human being in those moments when euphoric freedom lies cheek to cheek with total despair”

Paradise is Burning just premiered at the 80th Venice Film Festival, as part of the Orizzonti strand. It was announced as one of the contenders for the First Feature Competition at the BFI London Film Festival.

By Lia Gomez-Lang - 07-09-2023

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